Exercise is inherently uncomfortable, even downright painful. In fact, pain is so directly connected to our physical progress that recent research has shown that the amazingly adaptable human body responds to exercise by increasing our tolerance for pain. But we still have to get through that initial discomfort and build up that tolerance so that we can make progressive improvements in our physical conditioning, and modern science has discovered some essential ways to help us on that journey. As an exercise scientist and essential oil researcher, this recovery and volatile aromatic compound connection is right up my alley.
What is Recovery?
You don’t grow bigger, stronger, faster, and better conditioned while exercising. All the benefits of exercise come as your body rebuilds from the destruction caused by pushing its limits. Both strength training and cardiovascular activity cause micro-tears in your three types of muscle fibers: types I, IIA, and IIB. Through a process known as hypertrophy (and ideal conditions), they grow back denser, larger, more efficient, and more resilient. Intense exercise also has a similar destructive effect on bones and ligaments, vital organs, your central nervous system, and maybe even your psyche. Recovery is simply the process by which all this rebuilding occurs, encompassing numerous factors including time, rest, nutrition, and active methods (massage, self-myofascial release, stretching, and use of essential oils) that can facilitate this process. Recovery can be time-consuming and often downright uncomfortable.
In regards to recovery, there are generally two primary concerns: supporting the proper inflammatory process and dealing with acute pain. There are many natural products, such as essential oils, that can minimize discomfort and support our body’s natural healing mechanisms, in sometimes fascinating ways.
Not Steroids and Counter Irritation
Many of the best natural products to support the recovery process and minimize discomfort are nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs). These are products that you almost assuredly use all the time, but know little about. While they have a variety of uses in medical contexts, NSAIDs are compounds that have an anti-inflammatory and analgesic (pain-relieving) effect, primarily through inhibiting pro-inflammatory mediators such as the enzymes COX-1 and COX-2. Many of them (such as aspirin, ibuprofen, naproxen) are common over-the-counter drugs that are used to treat acute or chronic discomfort caused by anything from headache to tennis elbow. But not all NSAIDs are ingestible drugs; some of them are most effective at managing musculoskeletal aches and pains (such as that caused by intense exercise) when applied topically. And, if you are a regular user of essential oils, some of those compounds should sound familiar. Methyl salicylate —an amazing volatile aromatic compound and the primary constituent of wintergreen essential oil—is one of a group of chemicals known as salicylates (aspirin is acetylsalicylic acid) which are potent NSAIDs.
The term “counterirritant” sounds ominous, but when it comes to dealing with the aftermath of intense exercise it is actually a very good thing. A counterirritant is simply a compound that stimulates a sensation in one place to distract a discomfort somewhere else. Many of the best counterirritants work to mask the discomfort of exercise recovery through tricking the body into feeling like there is an extreme change in temperature, when there is in fact no change at all. Some of the most well-known and well-researched temperature-related counterirritants are methyl salicylate and menthol.
Tripping our Central Nervous System
A quick physiology lesson. Our ability to sense changes in temperature originates within our nervous system, specifically a series of nerves that transfer information from our skin to the hypothalamus. While we still have much to discover about how our body responds to variances in temperature, we do know of the receptor proteins that act on these special nerves and cause us to have chills in freezing temperatures or break out in a sweat when the thermometer sneaks past triple digits. Located within all of our cold-sensing nerve cells is the voltage gated ion-channel protein, TRPM8. (Meaning, when activated, it changes shape and allows calcium ions to enter the nerve cells.) If you’ve ever put a drop of peppermint essential oil in your mouth, you’ve experienced the lingering cooling and soothing sensation that comes with activation of those TRPM8 receptors, almost magically, without an actual drop in temperature.
Menthol, the monoterpene alcohol that is the dominant compound found in peppermint essential oil, is one of the wonders of essential oil science. While we don’t quite understand how, menthol has the unique ability to activate those TRPM8 receptors and make any tissue it comes in contact with immediately feel cold, when there has not actually been any change in temperature. Other research has shown that this instantaneous cooling effect of topically applied menthol can cause a numbing effect which reduces perceived pain. Furthermore, menthol can act as a vasodilator, widening the blood vessels in the tissue it comes in contact with, increasing blood flow to the area and facilitating recovery.
Methyl salicylate works through a totally different mechanism, to produce a similar outcome. As research has shown, topically applied methyl salicylate influences nerve signaling by increasing intercellular calcium levels, causing an immediate irritating warming sensation (indirectly, but without an actual change in temperature) that impels us to ignore the muscular or joint pain so the body can go through the processes necessary to rebuild.
This may sound like a lot of physiological smoke and mirrors, but as those who have ever topically applied wintergreen or peppermint essential oil can attest, the effects are very real. Along with supporting the proper inflammatory process so you can expedite the healing and adaptation process, those cooling and warming sensations literally irritate your body into not feeling the associated pain so you can continue to train and progressively increase your own pain tolerance. If the uncomfortable aftermath of exercise is one of the reasons why you can never stick to a routine, a few drops of wintergreen and peppermint essential oil applied to muscle and joints post-workout may be your (most irritating) best friend.
Dr. Damian Rodriguez is the health and exercise scientist for doTERRA International, LLC. He holds a doctorate in health science, a master’s degree in exercise physiology, and countless professional certifications. He has spent most of his life researching nutrition, exercise, and the lifestyle behaviors associated with optimal health. Along with his passion for health, as someone who lives with Asperger’s Syndrome, he is also involved in bringing awareness to autism spectrum disorders. There are varying opinions about many health and fitness topics. His opinions are his own and not necessarily that of doTERRA International, LLC. Consult your healthcare provider before making any changes to diet and exercise.